Your Church's Soup Kitchen Doesn't Create Social Change
OVER THE PAST 20 years, Rev. Barry Randolph has seen God revive the east side Detroit neighborhood of Islandview where he presides as pastor of the Episcopalian Church of the Messiah. Guided by God’s desire for what he calls “righteous economics,” Randolph has challenged traditional boundaries between church and community, bringing the good news of Jesus alongside affordable housing, workforce development, job placement for those returning from prison, a food pantry, community organizing, youth mentoring, and business incubation. He has even worked to provide low-cost internet service to those without it. “The work being done isn’t solely that of the church,” he said. “It is the people coming to the church with an idea, and we help that idea take root and grow.”
Unfortunately, Church of the Messiah is an outlier. Research I conducted on churches across the nation shows that, in general, churches are not helping their neighborhoods. Even worse, some are hurting them. But churches like Randolph’s are awakening others to the reality that neighborhoods need churches — and those churches need their neighborhoods. Guided by a God-sized vision for just economics found in Micah 4:4 (“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid”), these churches are working with God toward a new vision. Using the community economic development framework, they’re rethinking well-meaning charity and social service programs, church planting strategies, “taking a city for Jesus”-movements, and other traditional church-centric approaches to urban ministry and outreach.
“We all want to see the Islandview neighborhood continue to grow in an equitable manner,” Randolph said, “where all are welcome and can thrive.”
The wrong kind of impact
THERE IS A COMMON misconception that just by being there, churches bring good news to a neighborhood. While the good news may be preached inside the walls of a church, my own doctoral research at Portland State University revealed a mixed picture of the relationship between a church and its surrounding neighborhood.
In my study of more than 2,000 churches from 1990 to 2010, I found that churches are, on average, 1.6 times more segregated than their surrounding neighborhoods. This is made all the worse when we consider where new churches are being planted. My research reveals that church planting shifted from predominantly white, suburban, growing, higher-income neighborhoods in the 1980s, to “grittier,” “cooler,” diverse, lower-income neighborhoods in the 2000s — some of which were already gentrifying or at risk of gentrifying. And these new, predominately white churches, whose congregations seldom mirror the demographics of their neighborhoods, contribute to higher rates of gentrification, with higher-income white individuals moving into these once diverse, lower-income neighborhoods. Of course, churches are not solely or even primarily responsible for gentrification, but my research showed that churches are responsible for about 10 percent of the income growth that typically accompanies a community experiencing gentrification. One explanation for these disturbing findings is that these churches serve as a signal to higher-income, predominately white individuals that a neighborhood is changing and will soon be populated with people and institutions that mirror themselves.
For churches already in a neighborhood, a traditional community engagement strategy is to provide social services such as food and clothing programs. But as a former member of the board of a local chapter of Love INC, which aims to transform lives and communities through churches, I’ve seen growing discouragement within these churches as members question their programs’ effectiveness, with the same people returning for support year after year. My research confirmed that church social services, in general, did not create lasting change in the community as measured by impact on neighborhood incomes. However, I did find one positive impact: These services may enable low-income residents to stay in the neighborhoods, thereby slowing displacement from gentrification.